A certain group of self appointed guardians of the faith are up in arms over an animated movie called Sita Sings The Blues in which graphic artist and animator Nina Paley weaves a dark moment of abandonment in her persona life into the story of Sita’s repeated abandonment by Ram, the man she is devoted to and loves absolutely. The protesters, most of whom seem to belong to some sort of modern day Hindu fundamentalist, reformist and revivalist institution – are up in arms about what they believe is an insult to sacred deities and to Hinduism in general.
(Note: This piece was written some days before the news of Delhi University’s decision to withdraw, under pressure from conservative voices speaking on behalf of Hindu sensibilities and sensitivities, an essay by R. K. Ramanujan on the Ramayana.)
In a piece in the India Tribune, the writer pointed out that
Hindus have found almost every scene of the film, Sita Sings the Blues, denigrating, as it drew irreverent parallels between animator Nina Paley’s failed marriage and the sacred relationship between Hindus’ revered deities Rama and Sita.
The organizations participating in these organized protests against the film – Forum for Hindu Awakening, Hindu Swayam Sevak Sangh, Friends of India Society International, Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America and Hindu Yuva are insisting that the movie is aimed at destroying the dharma of the world’s Hindu population and that it is little more than an insidious attempt to ridicule and humiliate the community. The threat is so grave that the writers and authors of the site Hindu Janajagruti Samiti went so far as to state that:
The way to extinguish a religion is to first create utter disrespect for it in the minds of people about their faith. Then ridicule the followers so that they are downright ashamed of being Hindu. Then the lost directionless Hindu populace will be soft targets to defeat on any front.
Dire predictions indeed. Letter writing campaigns, peaceful street protests outside theatres and festivals showing the film and online campaigns to win support have been part of this effort. It seems that a four thousand year old cultural, literary, spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual tradition is teetering at the brink of extinction because of this nefarious film. If true, then we should be concerned.
What began all this is a short film called Sita Sings The Blues. Graphic artist Nina Paley produced this film in the aftermath of the ruins of her relationship, finding emotional, human and creative resonance in the sorrows of Sita, the lover of Rama, who is repeatedly rejected and humiliated by him. The artist Paley, speaking in an interview primarily about copy right laws and usage, pointed out that she saw a powerful similarity between corporations and religious fundamentalists in that…
…they believe that they own culture
In a separate interview, Paley explains what drew her to the Ramayana in the first place
I liked the ambiguity of the characters, where it seemed at first that they’re either really good or really bad, but they actually have contradictions and they behave mysteriously in a way that seemed very very real. It’s never explained or spelled out why Rama banishes Sita. It’s not spelled out in the story…It felt like it so described the human experience. It so described human suffering and it’s so old. Without it I would have thought I was an isolated case or just a modern neurotic or something, but the age of it and the depth of it made me feel connected to all of humanity.
It seems that Paley’s fault lies in a human reading of a work that others believe should only be read as sacred and divinely sanctioned.
I find it improbable that those organizing these protests genuinely believe that a small, independent film is an existential threat to a diverse faith that is practiced by hundreds of millions of people around the world and has in one form or another been a part of the history of man for over three millennium. So what is it that they are protesting against, and what lies behind these perceived insults to the faith and the people who practice it?
I would argue that these protests are not about perceived insults or even denigration of the religion we today call Hinduism, but about who owns the right to read, interpret and present works considered to be a part of the historiography of the religion. They are about imposing an elite, hegemonic reading and interpretation of supposedly religious texts, as determined and defined by a group self-appointed guardians of the faith. As such, they are about power and authority.
The movement against this film is part of a battery of protests carried out by members of the Indian diaspora in America who have appointed themselves as guardians of the ‘Hindu’ faith. This group, and the institutions that front their social and political agenda, have over the years attacked academics, intellectuals, teachers and public administrators they perceive as not sufficiently ‘respectful’ and ‘reverent’ towards Hinduism and its texts. In fact, they have gone so far as to reject any reading, interpretation or analysis of the religion by those they consider to be ‘outside’ the community of faith, adding a strong element of ethnic and racial bigotry to their already questionable mix of ideas and ideologies. Recently they even tried to wrest control of the practice and uses of yoga, claiming it as a unique heritage of Hinduism and demanding rules for its appropriate practice and discussion.
There is a also long history of attacks and harassment of academics at American universities led by a grou f self appointed Hinduism experts. Academics and researchers like Doniger, Laine, Courtwright and others have been harassed, assaulted and repeatedly threatened by members of Hindu right and fundamentalist organizations operating in the USA. Martha Nussbuam, in her book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religoius Violence And India’s Future has a nuanced and detailed examination of America’s Indian diaspora, and the many right wing Hindu organizations that now litter the landscape there.
The cultural, social and individual insecurities that underpin such retrograde behavior are not for me to discuss. Suffice it to say that these protests are motivated by a desire to ‘own’ Hinduism, and to insist that only appropriate (not all!) Hindus have the right to speak for it, analyze it and offer insights. In this they are heirs to two glaring fallacies: that there is a ‘Hinduism‘ that can be represented, and that there is a singular, hegemonic reading and interpretation of the Ramayana that can be imposed.
The fact remains that there isn’t a singular, definable religion called Hinduism. To claim otherwise is to go against over 3000 years of religious history of South Asia, and adopt an extremely ahistorical and shallow understanding of the diverse, fragmented and complex spiritual practices, with their tens of thousands of deities and tens of thousands of rituals, that was later simply called ‘Hinduism‘ because it could not be called Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or other. What people around the world consider as an ancient religion is in fact a very modern day construction.
These protesters are heirs to the ideas of a various Hindu reformists movements of the late 19th century, and are attempting to defend what is in fact a very modern, and explicitly Orientalist creation. In fact, many of the reformers of Hinduism frequently voiced their disgust at the gods of Hinduism, and the many diverse, fragmented and seemingly chaotic ways in which it was (and is) practiced. (See Nandy, Ashis: Bonfire Of Creeds). Determined to ‘cleanse’ the religion of these inappropriate practices, and bring it more in line with the Abrahamic religions and their monotheism, they appropriate the god Rama as the one key figurehead of their creed. Why Rama was chosen, and found amenable to their reformist agenda, is a very complex and interesting subject and but not for me to discuss here.
Even a cursory reading of the history of the Ramayana and its place in Indian history belies the idea that there can be a singular reading of it and a singular ownership of its meaning and use. There is no ‘one’, hegemonic Ramayana and that one of the measures of its greatness and universality is how frequently it has been appropriated, interpreted and used by so many. As Sheldon Pollock reminds us:
…the Ramayana…is, to be sure, more than a single text. For some scholars it rather approximates a literary genre, library, or language, added to, reworked, rewritten in every region and every community, and in every century for perhaps the last twenty; the tradition of the Ramayana, it is often argued, has been a tradition of contestation rather than a tradition of canonicity, starting at least with the Jain Palmacaria in the fourth or fifth century. For this reason, and because of even the Sanskrit text’s instability (often exaggerated, though), some hold that there may no longer exist any such thing as the Ramayana, if ever there did.
(Pollock, Sheldon “Ramayana And Political Imagination In India”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 261-297)
A similar argument is made by Arshia Sattar when she points out:
Revisions and representations of the tale with its terrible beauties and its critical challenges to the enquiring mind have come from across the social, political and emotional spectrum, from marginalized communities and from the disenfranchised, from caste and class elites, from radical thinkers as well as from poets and philosophers. All of this indicates an enormous desire to ‘own’ the story, to make it one’s own such that it speaks to one’s aspirations as a class, caste, community or individual, even if that aspiration takes the form of rejecting the story and its implications.
(Sattar, Arshia Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish page xii)
It would seem that it is the protesters that are in the wrong here, insisting on a use and representation of the work in a way that it has rarely been done in the past. When seen in the context of social and political history, it is clear that many even within India have done precisely this and that Paley’s is simply a more recent example of a long tradition:
…the Ramayana has been the object of numerous, sustained attempts at reconceptualization. All the reworkings … are … themselves new interpretations, but the past century has also witnessed new critical reassessments and conscious retargetings of the epic. This might lead to the argument that any notion of a divine political order has already been neutralized for a secular society by such reinterpretations as that of Mohandas Gandhi, for whom “Ramraj means rule of the people. A person like Ram would never wish to rule” (Lutgendorf 1991:381); or that the Ramayana’s demonization of the other has been neutralized for a pluralistic society by such reallegorizations as that of Aurobindo, who somewhere asserts that “the incarnate raksasa” is the “huge unbridled force . . . of the exaggerated ego.”
(Pollock, Sheldon “Ramayana And Political Imagination In India”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (May, 1993), pp. 261-297)
On one of the websites focused on protesting the movie, the writers claim that what the artist Nina Paley has done is to:
..take the ingredients of the epic story and give it a meaning which is completely opposite to the spiritual truths that the scripture conveys.
In fact, it could be argued that Paley’s deeply personal reading and appropriation of it is precisely what a work as human and complex as the Ramayana demands. Her interpretation is a very accurate and insightful one, and certainly more creative and human that that advocated by the fundamentalists, especially when we keep in mind that separation, and lost loves, are one of the most pervasive theme in the book itself. This is one of Sattar’s key points in her work Lost Loves, that:
…the leitmotif of Valmiki’s Ramayana is separation. Children are separated from their parents, brothers from brothers, wives from husbands…For all that the Ramayana is about righteous and rightful kingship and the battle between two equally matched protagonists, one ‘good’ and the other not quite so, it is also a love story, albeit one that is full of pain and sorrow. It is about learning to love someone and then losing them and about learning to live the with loss of love.
(Sattar, Arshia Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish page 89)
Paley’s appropriation of the work to say something about her own, very personal struggles, and her reading of it for wisdom and solace, are also not an unusual act. In fact, the longevity, universality and beauty of this works comes not from its canonization as a work of spiritual importance, but from the way in which it has acted as a mirror in which ordinary men and women have found themselves and a guide to help them through their own struggles of life.
There is a strongly political, radically extremist and violent interpretation of the text of the Ramayana that has emerged hand-in-hand with a resurgent and popular Hindutva (Hindu exclusivist, nationalist) movement in India. Theirs is a vengeful Rama – a destroyer, a conqueror, a vanquishers of ‘the Other’ today seen in the guise of ‘the Muslim’. From his iconography to his story, the radical right has transformed him into a weapon of political power in the latest of what will inevitably be many more appropriations and uses of the story and their character. As Pankaj Mishra pointed out in a piece on the history of modern day Hinduism, :
Hinduism in their hands has never looked more like the Christianity and Islam of Popes and Mullahs, and less like the multiplicity of unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians.
But Hindutva is not merely a political project, but also a deeply social and cultural one. Its earliest proponents – Savarkar, Gowalker and others, repeated expressed a need to ‘reform’ that varied, and multifarious ways in which the Indians outside the principal monotheism practiced faith and worshipped deities. In fact, the reformers were repulsed not just by the religious practices of the people of India, but even by the plethora of gods they believed in and devoted themselves to. (See Nandy, Ashis Bonfire Of Creeds). Their goal as as much to redefine the faith, unite it behind a consistent, authoritative interpretation, cleanse it off its ‘barbaric’ behavior and modernize it along the lines of existing monotheism. In that, it contains within it some interesting collection of ideas. As Jeffrelot points out:
The Hindu nationalist identity born out of the strategic syncretism process is not very Hindu. Paradoxically, the Hindu nationalist ideology emerged and developed by a process of assimilating external values and notions (monotheism, a solidarity based-more or less-on equalitarianism, a centralized ecclesiastical structure) which appeared ” to endow the rival and antagonistic groups with prestige and strength. The whole process is surdetermined by a nationalist perspective and this quest for a national cohesion leads to an homogenizing action which is contrary to the pluralistic and hierarchical essence of Hinduism.
(Jaffrelot, Christophe “Hindu Nationalism: Strategic Syncretism in Ideology Building” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 28, No. 12/13 (Mar. 20-27, 1993), pp. 517-524)
In fact, Valmiki’s original ‘…is full of heroes and villains, friends and foes, but gods and avatars, as we may understand them today, are not part of the narrative….It is also generally agreed that the first and last books (Bala Kanda and Uttara Kanda) , where Ram is seen as an avatar of Vishnu, are later additions’ (Kapur, Anuradha (1973) “From Deity To Crusader; The Changing Iconography Of Ram” in Hindu And Others: The Question Of Identity In India Today Ed. Pandey, G)
That is, Ram is not even a god until quite late in the cult that evolved around him and the two new books were added.
The sense of insult and the feelings of humiliation that are today expressed are a result of these modern attempts to not only reconfigure the classical Ram narrative into a purely divine one, but also control its practice, understanding and performance. They are a consequence of a lingering insecurity that all such projects of purity and canonization suffer from: that the ‘one’ interpretation is a subjective choice and its underlying assumptions nothing more than specific to our time, place and the interpreter. Hence, that they are open to a genuine challenge, and as a result open to transformation and change. As a result, these insecurities, these fears of being challenged are transformed into ‘existential threats’ even over most trivial, the most banal, and the most tangential of issues. The perception of difference as a threat helps obscure a serious examination of ideas of the ‘purist creed’ and acts to distract from any questioning of the authority that is manufactured. Imagining a faith from time immemorial, a historiography that is clear and divinely sanctioned, as opposed to being made by man, and convinced of the righteousness of their exclusivist interpretation, the religious purists are attempting to undo the very elements that have made Hinduism an open, accommodating, responsive, encompassing, tolerant, liberal and magnificently complex practice. Theirs is a project against Hinduism, to say nothing about its inherent hypocrisy: a demand for respect (read: obedience and unthinking veneration) that is being argued through acts of intellectual and creative intolerance and disrespect.
The Ramayana is a deeply human text. Despite the recent attempts to reduce it to merely a religious, sacred work, and impose a hegemonic reading and interpretation of it (e.g the Ramachand television series) , the Ramayana remains a work that speaks to the trials of humanity, the imperfection of life, and the constant struggle of man to balance his sense of duty and his obligations of love to family, friends and lover. And perhaps most importantly, it is a text that transcends religious categories, offering its lessons and wisdom, much like the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata, to even those from outside the official Hindu fold.
The story of the Ramayana is a story of trial and tribulation, of the subtlety of right and wrong, of love and loss. The Ramayana tradition has remained vital and vibrant for precisely this reason: that we continue to debate the righteousness of Rama’s actions and that we continue to seek answer that are meaningful to us, in our time and space. For what this man, exemplar of a culture, chose to do.
(Sattar, Arshia Lost Loves: Exploring Rama’s Anguish page xxi)
One of the most striking things about the work is how flawed, and human the god Rama is. His actions, emotions, decisions, regrets, sorrows, doubts and fears are not those of an all powerful, all knowing god, but of a very human god who must face difficult choices in life, and make difficult decisions. It is this humanity that pervades the work that gives it its universal appeal, and its textual and imaginative beauty.
It is this humanity that has drawn people over the millennia to it, and retained its accessibility to all and many. Any attempt to curtail this accessibility by attempting to control its interpretations and readings is to act to diminish the work and the lessons it holds for us. Works like the Ramayana do not and cannot be owned by any one religious or cultural tradition. In fact, I would argue that no work claiming to speak of gods and divinity can be the sole possession of a specific religious and/ or interpretive community.
Even I, a Pakistani born man of Kashmiri origin, am someone deeply aware of his Indic heritage, and claim the Ramayana as a part of my own heritage and I am proud of that. The days of Brahmanical (whether Islamic, Christian, Buddhist or other) exclusivity are long gone and we would do well to resist their return.
So without further ado, and without the fear of being harassed by the righteous and afraid, here is Sita Sings The Blues…
Aside: I have written previously about the frenzied paranoia of the righteous. In a post called They Set The Koran On Fire And Nothing Happened I argued that:
The faith, for those who truly believe, exists not merely in the printed pages, but as a divinely offered gift, in word and poetry that transcends its physical manifestation. It was for this reason the Koran was not even printed in the earliest years of the faith. It is why millions memorize it. It is meant to be spoken, sung and expressed. Like texts of all faiths, it lives in the heart and the soul, above the physical, and written into the existential.
It is an argument that I believe the practitioners of all faiths should remember. Merely creating a Piss Christ or a Sita Sings The Blues threatens nothing and does not warrant the kind of violent, aggressive, and vile responses they usually provoke. Our sensibilities, our sensitivities need to rise above the banal, and focus more on the messages of our faiths rather than the form and protection of them. The gods have offered themselves to protect us, and rarely if ever asked us to protect them.